The Northern Lights

May 19, 2002
Photographs taken between 1:20 and 1:50 a.m.

It was the perfect way to end a day on the prairie well, I'll talk about that later.

Time to Garden

First, about mid-afternoon on Saturday, May 18, I finally did what I had wanted to do for weeks plant my garden at the farm. Cool, spring weather delayed me from doing that last year I planted my garden on May 3.

We had one of the warmest winters ever during the months of December, January and February. However, old man winter made up for it in March, April and May, as winter-like weather has persisted, even into the past week when it snowed about a "half-an-inch" on Thursday morning, May 16.

On a previous day, my dad told me about a North Dakota spring where it snowed and where it was cold until late May. Looks like we're going to match that scenario this year.

Oh well, nothing we can do about the weather.

I was disappointed, though, when I inspected my garden that afternoon. I found that freezing weather the past two mornings had killed my first shoots of asparagus my favorite vegetable. My only hope is that the first pickings will be ready sometime soon (again, last year I picked my first asparagus over two weeks earlier).

I planted my entire garden that afternoon. I would have gotten done quicker if not for a plume of smoke to the north. My first reaction was that the fire was only a couple of miles away. However, after getting in my vehicle and driving north, I saw that the fire was probably seven miles away. Curiosity got the best of me, and I drove to see the fire which was burning very hot on this dry spring day.

After getting back to task and planting the garden (please rain we'll always take rain on the prairie), I took off for some of my favorite places to hike.

A Prairie Hike

The first thing I looked for was to see if there were any crocus plants still blooming. I found some right away probably the latest in the spring that I had ever seen a crocus plant in bloom again, thanks to the cold spring weather. I also scared up 30+ male sharptail grouse that were very inactive on their dancing ground.

I made another stop on the prairie, and spotted two dragonflies. Maybe there are some signs of life on the brown prairie. And maybe there's hope that the leaves will come, that the grass will grow, and that the countryside will soon have that green spring glow.

I came to my third stop, and was walking down a dirt path through a pasture. Whatever was walking alongside of me well, we both spotted each other at the same time. While it was hard to see the animal, I soon figured out that it was a badger. He quickly hunkered down close to the ground. I walked to within 10 feet of the badger, but it did not move. I took a couple of pictures and moved on I'm guessing that if challenged, the badger could have become quite a menace.

I arrived at an overlook and saw a sight that I look for every spring. The poplar trees had "spring green" leaves, and the contrast between them and the brown prairie was well worth a photograph.

Finally, I decided, time to get home.

Then, I saw it. A tick crawling up my pants leg. Goodbye tick. No supper for you.

Upon arriving home, I found two small ticks already embedded in my skin. Time for a shower (and I probably should have burned my clothes).

A Northern Lights Watch

Now, it was time to relax, but first, I did a quick check of my e-mail. I found out that there was a middle latitude aurora watch for the night how could the day get any better!

Later that evening, I loaded up all the necessary equipment in my vehicle, and headed off for the farm. I chose a location where I could view the setting planets (Venus and Jupiter) and the moon to the west, and the northern lights to the northeast.

Activity had been decent, and so my guess was that I would see the northern lights when it got dark, around 10:30 to 10:45 p.m. (sunset was around 9:15 p.m.). However, I could see nothing at that time. I looked again at 11:00 p.m. there was maybe a faint glow about 10 to 15 degrees above the northern horizon (pictures not posted here confirmed that).

With the inactivity, it was time for bed so I crawled in my sleeping bag in the back of the vehicle and looked out the window every so often.

I knew that patience and persistence would probably pay off, as I would probably see the northern lights sometime later.

Nothing at midnight.

Nothing at 12:45 a.m.

I woke up at 1:20 a.m. and looked out the window. The first thing I saw out of the corner of my eye was the bright moon in the western sky. Then I saw it in the north, a bright arc, about 10 to 15 degrees above the horizon. The arc itself was about 2-to-3 degrees in height.

I set up my tripod, and started to take photographs. Then it happened a substorm. The lights started moving, with rays reaching up to 50 to 60 degrees. As the rays moved, the base of the aurora about 15 degrees above the horizon would dramatically brighten and move from east to west. Then, a faint red glow appeared in the northeast.

The show kept on for about 25 minutes. Then I quit taking photographs, and crawled back into my sleeping bag.

Activity continued, though not as strong. Because of the cold weather for spring that is (the temperature dropped to at least 31 degrees that night) I decided not to venture out again. At about 2:45 a.m., I noticed another arc in the northern sky, and so I thought there would maybe be another substorm. However, I didn't see one and if there was one, I might have missed it due to my need for sleep.

In the meantime, I was getting cold in the vehicle, and I didn't want to turn the heater on (for numerous reasons safety and because I was parked in a dry pasture).

And sleep was difficult especially since I was shivering. A warm sleeping bag, and my jacket and clothes did not help.

At about 4:45 p.m., I had enough of the excitement of the northern lights (and besides, there was a lot of light in the northeast sky). I turned on my vehicle, wiped the moisture off of the inside windshield, and headed for home.

Once home, I checked the internet to see how strong the show had been, and hit the sack.

It's 9:45 p.m. on Sunday, May 19, and I'm paying for it now. I know that I'm going to sleep sound tonight.

But the loss of sleep was well worth the price of admission to see the 25+ minute sub-storm in the middle of the night, and a perfect way to end the day on the prairie.

Until next time.

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